“I can’t watch MSNBC and do nothing anymore,” says Jamie in “This Space Between Us.” Many of us surely have been feeling that way lately, especially in the past two weeks. Jamie decides to act on it. He announces to his boyfriend, his best friend and his family that he is leaving his job as a corporate lawyer to work at an international aid agency to help the people in the African nation of Eritrea.
None of them think it’s a good idea, except his aunt, Sister Pat, a nun.
Their initial reactions, though, mask what is the single strongest aspect of this new play by Peter Gil-Sheridan, which is ultimately more well-meaning than well put together. Slowly, we come to realize that each character in the play wants to do good in the world, although they have different ideas of what that means, and go about it in very different ways — some more ostentatiously; some more effectively; some so beneath the surface it’s hard at first to recognize.
Ted, Jamie’s boyfriend, is a vegan-eating, afghan-crocheting gay magazine editor who is tirelessly (and, we’re encouraged to believe, tiresomely) politically correct. He clashes comically with Frank, Jamie’s father, who calls Ted “General Hospital” to his face because he thinks Ted overly dramatic “like a walking soap opera.” Frank also makes ethnic jokes and calls Jamie’s female friend Gillian “a pretty little thing.”
“Frank, that’s a microaggression,” Ted says.
“I’m from another time, see,” Frank says good-naturedly.
“But you’re not,” Ted replies. “You’re from this time. You’re here, standing right here on that chair. We’re all breathing the same air so you know, the rules are the same.”
“These rules,” Frank replies. “Are they written down somewhere?”
“They make them up as they go along,” interjects Gillian, who’s more Frank’s ally than Ted’s.
Playwright Gil-Sheridan excels at such witty bickering, which the six-member cast of pros largely nail, (Another comic couple: Glynis Bell and Joyce Cohen, as two sisters, one of whom is a Sister, who are always at one another’s throats.) Amid the comedy, the playwright delivers some thought-provoking, unsentimental observations about Americans’ divergent do-gooder impulses. Such lively, worthwhile exchanges, however, are in danger of being drowned out by the disjointed story. In six busy scenes over 100 minutes, “This Space Between Us” travels through a year’s time from a race track in New Jersey to a hospital room in New York to an apartment in Nairobi, Kenya. Designer Steven Kemp’s set is most elaborate in the opening scene, a family get-together at a racetrack, complete with a flashing electric tote board. In-between the subsequent scenes, that tote board turns into an electric zipper flashing local and world news. But the news flashes were a decorative element rather than anything substantive or timely, or even directly connected to the play, at least not anything that I was able to catch. So, it’s clever, but something of a missed opportunity – which more or less sums up my reaction to “This Space Between Us” as a whole.
This Space Between Us
Keen Company at Theatre Row through April 2
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes, without an intermission
Tickets: $60 – $85
Written by Peter Gil-Sheridan
Directed by Jonathan Silverstein
Set design by Steven Kemp, costume design by Rodrigo Munoz, lighting design by Daisy Long, sound design by Luqman Brown, prop design by Addison Heeren
Cast: Glynis Bell (Sister Pat), Alex Chester (Gillian), Joyce Cohen (Debbie), Ryan Garbayo (Jamie), Tommy Heleringer (Ted), Anthony Ruiz (Frank)